At the end of last night’s Satsang class at the Sivananda ashram (which I mentioned in yesterday’s post) the yogi leading the class discussed the importance of not getting too attached to material possessions. In the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu scripture that underpins the philosophy of yoga which the ashram teaches, Swami Sivananda refers to humans as the ‘caretakers’ of everything they come into contact with in life, rather than the owners. We are all, he says, ‘passing pilgrims’ in this world, which is why the whole concept of ownership is one that he discourages.
The yogi gave the example of someone saving up to buy their first house, who feels that in the exchange of deeds they are laying claim to that property and making it their own. Yet the reality is that such an arrangement is only ever temporary because, ultimately, the end of life will sever all such ties. It follows, then, that everything else we humans like to stamp our ownership on is also merely temporary – including our relationships.
I really like the idea of being a ‘caretaker’ rather than an ‘owner.’ To give an example of why, when a person borrows an item of clothing they generally take care of it more than if it were their own, because they know at the end of the day (or week, or month) they’re going to have to give it back (after all, it would be pretty embarrassing giving something back in a much worse state than the one in which it was loaned).
I think that as a society we would do well to stop and think sometimes about the way in which we regard the things – and indeed people – closest to us. If everyone had in mind that they were ‘passing pilgrims’ the world might, I believe, be a better place to pass through.
Dawn breaks over the Agastya mountain range in southern Kerala. As the sun begins its lazy ascent from the horizon, a Chestnut-headed Bee Eater swoops across a lake, its surface so flat that the bird’s bright plumage is reflected back in glorious and unbroken technicolour. Rising from the lake are vapour trails, the ghost of night evaporating into the air and making way for day. The air is still, with no discernible sound besides the whooshing of the bird as it dips and dives down to the surface of the water. All is calm.
Beside the lake sits a man. Clothed in robes of orange, his legs are crossed, the thumb and forefingers of each hand touching one another. His eyes are closed. He looks to be in quiet contemplation, yet he is transcendent; half in this world, half in the next. No earthly troubles phase him, no thoughts chatter incessantly inside his head. He is a master of the art of the still mind, having experienced the peace that comes with being fully in the present in a way that few can comprehend. He sees in, on, above, beneath and through all things.
He is a swami, a man of great religious faith, a Hindu god-in-waiting. He sought enlightenment, and found it. He is at peace.
This is the late Swami Vishnudevananda, one of the two swamis who were revered at the ashram where I stayed for two weeks of last year. He was my favourite because of his big smile and open demeanour, and because of this image with the caption: One has to ask oneself, what do I really want from life? That is the fundamental question. Indeed it is Swami.